Family remembers local soldier's sacrifice
By MATTHEW KENWRIGHT
The American flag flying outside a small French village is a quiet reminder of the ultimate sacrifice a Rozel man and his eight crew members paid during World War II.
Seventy years after his death, Lt. Leroy Blattner's story has not been forgotten. Faye Klein, Hays, recently traveled with seven family members to Sceaux sur Huisne, France, to visit the site where her uncle died after his Marauder B-26 bomber crashed.
A French group invited the relatives to remember Blattner and the other servicemen. An estimated 150 town residents marched in a parade June 21 and attended the unveiling of a memorial commemorating the plane's crew.
Three generations made the trip at the urging of Blattner's sister, Charlotte Becker.
"My mom kept saying, 'Somebody needs to go for Roy,' " Klein said.
Although the 99-year-old Becker struggled to communicate, her eyes lit up at the mention of her brother. Becker clutched a framed black-and-white photograph of Leroy in his Air Force uniform as her daughter shared a story she heard growing up.
The anecdote about Leroy's training mission over Rozel reflected his playful side.
"They let him take the controls, and I think he flew real low over the town," she said. "I guess those things made a horrible racket when they went over the town. ... I guess people came out, and I think they thought Germany was attacking or something."
The young man, who would be 92 today, had planned to be a doctor while studying at Kansas State University. The deaths of extended family members on the USS Arizona in the Pearl Harbor attack inspired him to join the war effort.
The lieutenant's fateful flight was Aug. 3, 1944. Taking off in dangerous weather, the bomber group's mission was to hit a rail junction. The poor conditions forced an ally to steer into the path of Blattner's bomber, and the pilot banked too sharply and damaged the wing. The plane spiraled and crashed into the French countryside, killing the crew.
A German soldier arrived on the scene to stand guard. The bombs on the plane exploded, killing the man. Remains at the crash site have been placed in a common grave at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis, Mo.
The Association Normandie du Souvenir AÃ©rien 1939-1945 Orne-Maine, which translates into Normandy Association of Aerial Memory, staged the program.
It collaborates with the California-based Lacey-Davis Foundation to identify family members of U.S. soldiers who died during service and give them any artifacts remaining at the scenes.
Klein and her family found a large remnant from the bomber's gun turret, the navigator's inkwell and pieces from the plane. The site almost seemed "sacred" to the French, and parents remind children of the Americans' role in the war, she said.
"They said what they're always told is that, 'It's a duty to remember that we wouldn't be free,' " she said.
Stories about German soldiers killing French locals because they were growing food in their gardens rattled her perspective.
"I think that's what is so different for us," she said. "Until you go over there and listen to it, we don't realize, we have no idea, what it's like to lose your freedom."
Isis Norris, 10, said the trip made her appreciate her great-great-uncle's sacrifice.
"I think it was really courageous of him to go over there and fight for the country," she said.
Hannah Norris, 15, said it was a "heavy" experience visiting the American cemetery overseas.
"It's kind of weird because I have friends that just graduated and stuff, and they're about that age," Hannah said. "It could have been us."